Now that I am starting to get more of a grasp over what exactly I am going to be sequencing a project out of, it is important to come back to review the ethics of my project, it will be important to include those I am photographing in order to create a collaborative approach to the work and also have the consent of those I am photographing. I have spoken about the project with my family, however this is a continuing dialogue to ensure that the reading of the final outcome will be both faithful and respectful to them.
Themes are developing in my work that could be viewed with a kind of othering of my family, which I could be doing as much as anyone looking at the series. Kirsty Mackay noted in an interview with her collective ‘The Other,’ “Photography’s always been very good at portraying victims and not as good at portraying the perpetrators. And if you are looking at poverty, for instance, through a middle-class lens it’s easy to miss out a lot of the nuances and tell a very single sided story” (Mackay, et al., 2021). I am not looking at poverty, but being that my family is working class, the project would inevitably attract some attention in this area. My intention is not to portray my family as victims – they are not. The focus is that there are a number of beliefs, which are formed by the individual, but also by outside influences and that we start to subscribe to the labels that we are given. I have written about this previously after listening to Nichola Twemlow discuss this in relation to her experiences with social work (2021). Mackay et al also discuss this specifically to photography, where they note in particular about those in power applying the labels and also how this starts to shape and effect those given the labels. If someone is photographing you and also telling you the reason is because you are working class, or poor, then how does that start to effect and impact the relationship between photographer and the person being photographed? The portrayal could be misleading (2021). It is crucial that I continually ask myself these questions, even when I am photographing my family and subscribe to some of the labels. I am the one with the camera, so also the one with the power so there needs to be a collaboration as even though I share much of the same experiences as my family this does not mean that I am immune from exploiting them. This again feeds back into Mariamma Attah’s discussion around ideas of socially engaged practice (Fig: 1), where I analysed the key points of this concept and how I can apply them to my project.
As my project is my own family, I am well placed to navigate the nuances that Mackay et al suggest might be missed by a complete outsider. It is also worth noting that this is my story to tell. However, I am still an outsider in the sense that I am the one with the camera looking in. The dialogue is important t have with the people in the project but also with myself. Savannah Dodd discusses this in the article ‘The Ethics of Documenting your own Family,’ which points out the need to not overlook such questions just because they are your own family, as Dodd notes of Amanda Mustard: “It’s a gift to have the perspective and personal experiences that allow access to important stories that may not be told with depth otherwise. But with greater depth comes the need for greater ethical care.” (2021).
Dodd, S., 2021. The Ethics of Documenting Your Own Family. [Online] Available at: https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/the-ethics-of-documenting-your-own-family-7225ca8bd59a [Accessed 11 June 2021].
Mackay, K., O’Brien, K. & Coates, J., 2021. The Other: On class in the industry [Interview] (26 May 2021).
Twemlow, N., 2021. Communities and Communication Conference 2021: Connections. Staffordshire, Staffordshire University.
I have reached a point in my project where I really need to consider the way that my photographs are representing the people in the images. There are some areas that have come up, that I have been drawn to in fact. For example, there are aspects to the beliefs that my mother holds, which really feed into the unreliable narrator idea and the way that mis-information proliferates. For example, upon my last visit home, I have noticed more objects around my parents home, such as the garden incinerator’s that both my parents and my brother have (Fig 1 & 2). They use these to burn anything that has an identifying address on instead of garden waste, which is born from some of the conspiracy theories that my mother is particularly interested in. I have not really considered this as part of the unreliable narrator project before however, my family are very much following a great deal of the mis-information and false narratives that exist on the internet, especially around the pandemic and attempts to vaccinate. There are new subtle hints towards this attitude to Covid, which can be seen in the portrait of my brother’s wife and her ‘mask exempt’ badge (Fig: 3).
I have avoided this part of my family’s character up to now, but feel that it has become quite an important part to potentially include, owing to the nature of the subjects that I am exploring. My initial feelings are that I can potentially leave these aspects in a future sequence with little to no explanation as it drives the unreliable narrator theme through the work, leaving readers to discover these elements in the work. This is my family however, and it is not my intention to draw negative reaction to any of the people included in the work. This is important to me. How do I include them whilst remaining empathetic and respectful for the individual? I don’t believe that anyone who believes that Covid is a conspiracy is coming from a bad place and I also feel that it is actually important to analyse the reasons why they believe it in an open discussion that does not resort to partisan stone throwing. Neuroscientist, Hannah Critchlow notes that our beliefs are constructed to help us understand the world around us, we create the rules in which we see the world operate (2021). Critchlow’s suggestion is that as a way of trying to understand something that is too large to comprehend, such as the make up of the universe or the way that a global pandemic has spread, it is completely natural to gravitate toward religion and other beliefs. A recent study on the way that ideas and information spreads through the internet found that lies spread much faster than truth, noting “false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it” (Vosoughi, et al., 2018). The challenge is in the way that others might look at and potentially mock those who believe in such theories.
Socially Engaged practice
Collaborative practice might be a way of bridging this. Mariama Attah made a really valuable keynote lecture during adapt on this way of working (2021). Her interest is in overlooked visual culture, which I believe my project falls into. Her discussion centered around the ways that we can share power as photographers and having a collective voice. I need to do more. I have been very focused on understand a narrative from my own perspective and collection images without necessarily talking through the process with my family, apart from the correspondence that I have sent out to my grandmother. I think the lack of response from her has created a certain apprehension in talking to my parents at any length about the project. This is something that I must challenge as it potentially could lead to a problematic end result that does not include those I am photographing.
Attah noted elements of a socially engaged practice (2021):
Acting as an Ally
Questioning photography’s history
Privilege and Power
I now need to look at some of these elements much more closely and investigate whether I am using them faithfully, for example:
I identified this early in in the project but have yet to explore it fully. I have conducted two interviews with distant uncles and also spoken to a cousin who I haven’t seen in 10 years. I must start the process with my mother. I think that I have found this to be too close for me to get past so far, as Marianne Hirsh also noted “Perhaps it is the familial look itself that makes it difficult to read this picture which will not reveal any identifiable truth” (1997, p. 104) where the same might be true of any familial exchange I may have with close family members. It remains important to continue working through this the conversations I have with more and more of my family will enable a more empathetic approach, another one of Attah’s socially engaged elements
Now that I have come across more and more of the extreme views held by members of my family, it creates the question of how much advocacy these ideas should be allowed. The have every right to believe them. They are also an interesting evolution in the idea of the unreliable narrator – but that doesn’t mean that I should include for either of these reasons. It will be important to consider the reaction of others towards them should I choose to include the images, which will be an important part of the conversation, above.
Comparing to others:
How is my approach comparing to others? Anthony Luvera is a photographer that I have looked at previously during the MA, his approach to community and socially engaged projects is possibly one of the best examples of how this approach can foster a faithful representation of all involved (Fig: 4). His interest in the ethics of photography is something that I keep returning to, as he states “One of the things about any kind of social practice, whether it be within the expanded field of photographic practice, or another art form such as applied theatre, is a tension between the process of working with participants and the products that are created and then circulated to audiences” (Luvera in Homer, 2019) echoing the thoughts of Attah, when she noted “Photography’s history has been about classifying people & object in orders of worth and value” (2021). A key takeaway from my last supervisor meeting with Wendy was an idea of belief, which I feel is a way of creating a respectful approach to the work. Ultimately, I must move forward by conversing with the people in my project to discuss this idea of belief and how best they wish that belief to be represented.
Attah, M., 2021. Adapt 21: Responding Through Curating. Falmouth: Falmouth Flexible.
Critchlow, H., 2021. The Science of Fate. 1 ed. London: Hodder Paperbacks.
Hirsch, M., 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. 2012 Reissue ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Luvera, A., 2019. Anthony Luvera – interview: ‘Photography is a way of telling stories about the world’ [Interview] (15 August 2019).
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S., 2018. The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), pp. 1146-1151.